by Morgan Schlesinger (MA, 2016, President MSGA)
There was a lot on my mind when I first landed in Washington DC for my 2016 summer internship at the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). Would I like the city? Would I like my internship? Would the summer be a success? I arrived a week early for the American Alliance of Museums conference, and was anxious to spend the week attending the conference and learn the city. Somewhere between AAM’s catered meal at the Newseum and free drinks at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, I realized my concerns were all for naught: Washington, DC is the perfect place for a museum intern to spend the summer.
I work in the Museum on Main Street (MoMS) division of SITES, which focuses exclusively on building exhibits for small museums in rural communities. Under the oversight of the program’s director and my intern supervisor, Carol Harsh, MoMS has been building and traveling exhibits since 1991. Although these exhibits are conceived at a national level, they are implemented locally. According to Carol, the idea is for communities “to use the Smithsonian Exhibition as the starting place…and then develop their own local programs and exhibitions to complement the MoMS exhibition.” Eager to understand more about how MoMS affects its host museums, Carol brought me on for the summer to answer a crucial question: What long term impacts do MoMS exhibits have on host museums after the exhibition booking period?
My interest in exhibition development and planning makes SITES and this project a natural fit for my career goals. I want to conceptualize exhibits that are engaging, educational, and impact the community positively. This project presents a great opportunity to use my background in market research and analysis to learn more about what drives both a successful exhibit and museum. To answer this question, I pored over surveys completed by host museums consulting with members of the MoMS team, and reached out to past host museums for their input.
Many projects have sprung from this central question, the primary one being a series of case studies on exemplary MoMS museums that showcase the long-term benefits of hosting an exhibit. These residual effects may include improved attendance, new community partnerships, or more volunteer hours. To encourage MoMS to adopt a long term approach to their evaluation techniques, I revised their close out reports to implement a system in which MoMS will contact museums months after hosting an exhibit to gauge how their operations have changed.
Working closely with the MoMS team gave me the opportunity to participate in the planning of upcoming exhibitions and learn more about SITES as an organization. It was fascinating to learn how MoMS relates to the rest of SITES and see previews of the many exhibitions in the organization’s pipeline. The weekly staff meetings in which everyone discusses current projects show just how much work and passion is put into each exhibition.
In addition to SITES being a great internship site, Washington DC is a joy to explore. As a West Coast transplant, it was great to live in a new part of the country and see what it has to offer. DC has as many interesting restaurants and special events as it does museums. I developed a shameless addiction to Panas, an authentic empanada place dangerously located a mere three blocks from my apartment. And although every museum I visited is been unique, the most memorable has been the Renwick Gallery’s Wonder exhibit full of ambitious installation art pieces of all types. My goal is to visit a new part of the city every weekend, all in order to accomplish the impossible task of seeing everything before returning to San Francisco in August.
Interning at SITES has reaffirmed my belief that exhibitions are a great teaching tool for museums. Furthermore, planning new exhibitions means there is always a something new to be learned. In an organization like SITES, one minute you can be brainstorming ideas for a space exhibit, and the next working on exhibit content for an exhibit on American democracy. This diversity is energizing and always leaves me looking forward to what’s next.
For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program click here.